Counterbalance No. 105: Oasis' 'Definitely Maybe'
In my mind my dreams are real. Are you concerned about the way I feel about the 105th most acclaimed album of all time? Too bad, because tonight I'm a rock 'n' roll star. Oasis’ 1994 debut is next.
Klinger: Mendelsohn, I don't want to alarm you, but we're about to spend another week discussing Oasis. I know in the past you've had a, shall we say, less-than-cordial relationship with the Gallagher brothers (actually as-it-turns-out pretty talented Noel and his brother Liam, the one who seems mad all the time), plus Guigsy, Bonehead, and, uh, whoever their drummer is (Drumsy?), so I'm not really sure how to broach this subject with you. But I will point out as of today, the number of Oasis albums we've covered now equals the number of hip-hop albums we've covered. Just putting that out there. The Great List that gives us our marching orders has spoken.
I am curious, though, to hear how you're dealing with this most recent influx of Mancuniosity. After all, to our American ears, Definitely Maybe doesn't deliver the immediate visceral reaction that we had to (What's the Story) Morning Glory? and its many, many hit singles. Granted, a few tracks made their way into our charts here in the States, but they were the lesser-known ones like the Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock Charts. The album had nowhere near the ubiquity that their follow-up achieved, so how does that affect the way we relate to it today, nearly 20 years after the fact?
Mendelsohn: I came in hoping to find a record that wouldn't make me feel like a teenager again, or at the very least, show off an Oasis that was still a little rough and unpolished. I was sorely disappointed.
Two things strike me right off the bat about this album: Liam's terrible singing and the overall bland nature of the songwriting. After listening to this record I feel like I've been sitting next to a malfunctioning piece of machinery that emits a loud, droning hum. There's no take-away, nothing that makes this record stand out in my mind. Context-wise, this sort of uptempo Britpop stood in stark contrast to the dour strains of grunge that exploded from Seattle, so I guess at the time this record may have been a welcome respite from the constant drizzle of nihilism. But looking back at it today, I have a hard time finding any stand-alone merit, and I keep coming back to the notion that Definitely Maybe is on the list simply because Oasis also happened to release one of the biggest records of the 1990s. The gravitational pull of (What's the Story) Morning Glory? was strong enough to suck Definitely Maybe into the backwash and place it on the list solely because it gave some sort of perspective of where Oasis had started. That start, however, as I've done my best to listen to it over and over and over, doesn't strike me as worthy of a place on the Great List. But, in my defense (and seemingly to my own detriment) I'm not British and may be completely missing something.
I imagine that if you were to put on a monocle and dust off your top hat, you would be a passable Englishman, can you tell me if I'm missing something?
Klinger: I could be David freakin' Niven and still not be able to explain to you what's going on here. Sure, there are a few pretty good songs on here. For starters, I really like the sweet little chords that set "Up in the Sky" apart from the rest of the numbers here, and "Live Forever" has a solid hook in there. But by and large, Definitely Maybe is a collection of pretty standard pop rock songs buried under a morass of early '90s guitar swirliness and punctuated by a barking ham of a lead singer. (The Gallaghers might even be from the obscure Manchester suburb of Barkingham. I'm not looking it up.)
And I've tried. After discovering that I really had no issue whatsoever with (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, I was actually looking forward to Definitely Maybe. I'd only heard bits and pieces in the past, so I was hoping I'd hear a glimpse of that youthful exuberance that you sometimes get from a group’s debut effort, that sense of the early promise that would later come into full fruition. But all throughout my listening, I just kept waiting for each song to go ahead and end already. Seriously, Oasis guys, there is nothing about the song "Columbia" that merits six-plus minutes of extended guitar strumming. I think you're right that people were just happy to hear some guys who sounded like they were enjoying being rock 'n' roll stars (so much so that they wrote a song about it).
Mendelsohn: I'm glad it is not just me. But then, we are two full-blown Yankee wankers. At some point last week, I was listening to this album and stumbled upon something I really liked, but I didn't bother to make a note of it, and now I can't find it. Which makes me wonder if I really did find something on this album that I enjoyed or if I had just been drinking (heavily). I too like the sweet chords on "Up in the Sky", but as soon as that song hits, I immediately think to myself, "Well, this is nice, too bad the Beatles already did it", and did it better might I add.
I know we went back and forth about my contention that Oasis sounded like the Beatles and I'm sorry to drag it back up, but maybe the problem with this record is that Oasis hadn't yet perfected their Beatles-mimicking rip-off act. To my ears, (What's the Story) Morning Glory? seems full of lifted Beatles-isms, while "Up in the Sky" is the only song on Definitely Maybe that strikes me as even remotely Beatles-ish. That still doesn't explain why this record is a few spots out of the Top 100 but then, life is full of mysteries, like gravity and rainbows and magnets.
Klinger: I can't stress this enough, Mendelsohn—Oasis really doesn't sound all that much like the Beatles. In retrospect, I'm not altogether sure how this canard made its way into our American consciousness. They are a very British-sounding group, and that's something that many of us just end up equating with a Beatlesque vibe, but that's really about where the similarities end. Now as for why this album is as highly regarded as it is, I'm going to say that it's a lot to do with the sheer self-assuredness that they demonstrated right out of the gate. Oasis immediately positioned themselves as the cocky antithesis to just about everything else that was going on. They set themselves apart from everyone else that was making the scene in the NME and so forth—Blur, Radiohead, etc. They gave great quote copy, and the media couldn't help but take the bait.
And as I said earlier, they weren't afraid to act and behave like rock stars, and that's one reason why the first track on Definitely Maybe is certainly one of the high points. "Rock 'n' Roll Star" does get going good, and it's enough to keep my interest right up until the second track, the surprising-only-in-its-annoyingness "Shakermaker", which manages to repurpose that old-timey Coke jingle without ever once making me want to teach the world to sing.
Mendelsohn: So, what, you can just act like a rock star, play some bland, sawed-off pop-rock songs and land yourself on the Great List? Is that what you are getting at? Is this the second coming of the Sex Pistols? This album is terrible and if all it took to make the list was to act like a jerk-off rock star who played popular little ditties we'd have spent the last two years talking about nothing but Kid Rock, Mötley Crüe, and Kanye West.
Definitely Maybe is nothing but one extended buzz track, nearly a monotonous string of songs that are filled with the white noise of swirling guitars everyone was so fond of in the 1990s and Liam's incessantly dragged-out vocals that make him sound like someone is beating an old cat with a stick. It's not until the very last track, the acoustic strummer "Married with Children", that the noise suddenly abates and I'm left with something half-way listenable (so long as I'm not listening to the insipid lyrics). The problem is, this doesn't follow through onto their next album and I keep hoping to myself that, with each new revision of the Great List, this album will drop precipitously. Am I setting my hopes too high?
Klinger: Well, Mendelsohn, I reckon anything can happen. It's true that this album caused quite a commotion over in the UK, and Morning Glory did a lot to solidify their position, but it seems from my outsider's vantage point that the Gallagher's facility for pugnaciousness may have gotten in the way of the music. Their position in the canon seems pretty well-assured, but time will tell regarding the placement of their individual albums. After all, Be Here Now, their 1997 follow-up to (What's the Story) Morning Glory?, has gotten a sound thrashing since it came out, but as it stands it's the next Oasis album we'll be covering—in the year 2061.